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Gender equality and the 'merit' myth?

Julia and her legacy as Australia’s first female PM, the lack of women in the Abbott cabinet, the next generation of dads wanting more flexible working arrangements and the introduction of the newWorkplace Gender Equality Act. These items all point to 2013 as a year when ‘gender issues’ moved into mainstream dialogue.

While the new legislation is perhaps the least newsworthy of these conversations, for organisations with more than 100 employees – and there are more than 400 of them in South Australia alone – it is the one that is providing the greatest immediate challenge. The depth and breadth of the requirements of the legislation – from ensuring that the ‘right’ data is collected internally to undertaking consultation with employees, means that HR directors all over Australia are groaning in unison. Meeting the requirements of this hefty piece of legislation requires more than a tick box approach.

As organisations report on the percentage of women in senior leadership positions, or lack thereof, it seems inevitable that debate will ensue about the need for quotas or minimum standards. A commonly held view is that quotas are anti-meritocratic. Given ‘merit’ is synonymous with objectivity and fairness, it must be the most effective route to equality … right??

The first problem with a merit approach is that it relies on an ideal that is rarely true in practice - the level playing field. This principle assumes that everyone has had equal access to acquiring whatever quality is defined as ‘merit’. While statistics around tertiary education will tell you that women graduates now outnumber their male counterparts, women still remain under-represented in senior roles in almost every professional sphere. So while the playing field starts off reasonably level, it doesn’t seem to stay that way for long.

The second problem is in actually defining and measuring merit. Merit should be about potential, a prediction of performance, not just about prior experience or number of years worked. Given the criteria for predicting performance are notoriously difficult to quantify and assess, ultimately the determination of what counts as ‘merit’ is defined by the perceptions of those making the decision. When it comes to perceptions, it is very difficult to insulate decision-makers from gender stereotypes and unconscious bias.

The research points overwhelmingly to the fact that when deciding who to appoint and promote, decision makers, (typically white, educated, middle-class males), are naturally drawn to those they perceive to be most like them. While there is no doubt that much of the time this preference is unconscious, the result can become a self-perpetuating cycle.

Research also suggests that there are two dimensions on which the stereotypes of men and women differ – women are perceived as less competent, but interpersonally warmer relative to men, while men are perceived as less interpersonally warm and more competent relative to women. Given ‘merit’ is closely related to the notion of ‘competence’ and ‘capability’ it may be that merit based decision-making actually results in more biased outcomes, by playing to men’s stereotypic strength.

Indeed 2010 research in the US found a ‘meritocracy paradox’. In organisations where merit was emphasised as a basis for selection and performance appraisal decisions, men were more likely to be selected, and more likely to be awarded higher salary increases, compared to equally qualified women. Of particular interest is that this paradoxical effect only occurred in organisations where merit was explicitly espoused as an organisational value.

The fact that organisational processes adopted to enhance equality and make decision-making more objective can actually have the reverse effect shows just how complex the goal of achieving gender equality can be.

While selection/promotion/reward processes that are blind to gender might be a nice in theory, in the real world they are almost impossible to achieve. This doesn’t mean however, that we should be blind to the fact that merit based systems might just be further entrenching inequality, while at the same time being used as an excuse for inaction.

Diarmid Lee